A Week of Abalone

Carlos (Not-a-Mexican) Townsend III was one of the Topanga boys, which meant he’d grown up wild in the hills. My family were Dust Bowl escapees living out in the Valley, but Carlos and I were sent to the same high school. After running against each other for student body president—no one ever said how much I lost by—we got to be friends in Miss Eisenberg’s senior civics course. It was 1947, and Miss E was under investigation by the California Un-American Activities Committee. Postwar rage and disappointment were also the reigning sentiments of Carlos’s and my fathers, and so we resolved to leave home as soon as possible.

The university was six buildings then, almost intimate. The Hovel was intimate, too: three boxy garages sandwiched together, separated from the freestanding homes on both sides by thin strips of earth. Though Carlos had gained an inch and some mass, I was still a cabbage-faced kid with dirt under my nails. To furnish the place, we salvaged a couch from the Townsends’ living room and took the radio and table and chairs from sidewalks, everything from other people’s deteriorating homes.

We made our own meals. Whatever else we were in our undergraduate days, we weren’t mama’s boys—not even as freshmen when I was learning to spell psychiatry. We slept on low cots jammed in side by side like a refugee camp, which, in a way, it was. Carlos and I each had a stable of brothers who rotated through when they flew the coop looking to peck bigger worms. My oldest brother had gone to seminary, and he had a church in Pasadena, but I had higher ambitions. A medical degree. It wasn’t spiritually admirable, but being a doctor was at least palatable to my father. “Philosophy” and “sociology” turned him purple. Mother, too, was pleased with my plans. “You can help your father with his arthritis.”

“Not that kind of doctor,” I said.

I didn’t much like my pre-med classes, but studying anything was better than threshing beans beside my father and smudging orange groves for spending money. And at 48 tuition dollars per semester, even a hardscrabble farm boy like me could afford an education.
When we weren’t in school, Carlos and I went exploring—money- and food motivated excursions like trolling backcountry roads for scrap metal and picking boysenberries in the hillsides. The salt-crusted day whose heat and green water soldered our friendship and made all that came later—including the very end— possible was a Tuesday. Carlos had decided we would dive for abalone. We’d catch enough to feed us for a week and go to the movies with the money we’d saved. He knew how to harvest the animals, which I’d never tasted, and in my mind were just big flat garden snails. Carlos swore the meat to be tender and delicious when done right, and packed with calories. I was a hoarder, carefully carving away the unnecessary and stashing for the inevitable lean day, but Carlos broke me of that habit by eating my savings late at night when he arrived home, ravenous, after taking girls out. But he was the one who did the cleaning up, including my mess, so I could hardly complain. We’d grown up in the same Depression, but Carlos’s attitude was to live each day making up for what he’d missed.

Carlos had borrowed a car from a friend I didn’t know— Carlos had a lot of friends I didn’t know—and we drove north to Point Dume.

“Why would God be on the side of Republicans?” I said. “There’s no logic to it.” I was tending to another fight with my father, ignited the day before. Every Sunday I hitchhiked to my parents’ ranch to go to church and eat my weekly ration of beef. The previous week I’d purposely left behind the latest issue of The New Republic, and then yesterday, after saying grace in his middling, scratchy voice, my father had placed the folded publication beside his plate and stood up. Leaned his clean-shaven face over the sliced radishes and boiled broccoli right down into mine, our noses separated by a breath of hot air.

“What makes you think you’re better than us?” he said.

“Did you read the articles?” I said.

“I know what they say. Urging pinko sympathies on young men raised to know what is good about this country. We just saved the godforsaken world, Donald. Did you know that? Did you know how much trouble we were in? Now we’re at peace and these blind lefties are stirring up trouble all over again. I’m ashamed of you.”

The old agitation rose and swirled. I debated with myself how far to go. Finally, I said, “I understand, Father. It’s not for you. This magazine is for the educated, free-thinking man.”

My mother did not look up. She pushed her chair back and scuffed her feet repeatedly across the floorboards in a whispering prayer. Two of my younger brothers stared hard at each other, hooting and hollering in their heads. A rooster crow carried in from the yard.

The tips of his ears crimsoned first, then the lobes. The flush spread down his cheeks like irrigation water soaking a field, until the ball of his nose bloomed into a ripe tomato. His fingers locked on to the table, and I felt the tremble in my knees.

“Ray,” my mother said.

He hurled his fork to the floor. “God gave me a better education than any of these faithless liberals! You want to join them, you find your dinner elsewhere.”

I pushed my plate away, then turned to kiss my mother. She murmured, “God help you,” which stunned me, but I had to show my back.

Carlos, taking the turns in the Chevy coupe with one hand, said, “Fight back, Don.” Carlos had thick eyebrows and a sloped nose. His cheeks were high and arrogant but his eyes soft. He had not let the Townsend furies trespass his body. “Tell him he’s not making sense.”

“Is that what you do?”

“My father is a drunken dolt. What he says doesn’t stick to me like it does to you. You’re still teaching Sunday school when you don’t believe anymore.”

I was raised on Democrat Road—so named because it was crooked. When I’d asked my father why he hated Roosevelt, he said it was because FDR gave pride away for free. I reminded him of Roosevelt’s American creed, which I’d memorized in Miss E’s class: “The creed of our democracy is that liberty is acquired and kept by men and women who are strong and self-reliant, and possessed of such wisdom as God gives mankind—men and women who are just, and understanding, and generous to others—men and women who are capable of disciplining themselves.” Which part didn’t he agree with?

“Those are just words,” he’d said.

Words would be the foundation of my psychiatry career—before we became just pill pushers.

“Your father doesn’t know who you are,” Carlos said. “He should know.”

“We wouldn’t get on any better,” I said.

“You’ll be a fine psychiatrist.” Carlos laughed, broad teeth gleaming like a film star. The cove where we were going, he said, you could see straight down twenty-five feet. Sand like silt between your toes.

My father wasn’t jealous of my education, but it rubbed him the wrong way. Once he’d turned Roosevelt against me: “An uneducated man might steal from a freight car, but a man with a university degree will steal the whole railroad.” But I think that, at heart, he was worried we’d end up on opposite sides. Me for the poor, him for the righteous hard-working. How could we then be father and son, meet up in heaven? Back on the farm in Colorado, we were unlucky, not poor.

I stuck my hand out the window to catch the sun. Flipped back and forth between a shiny scrubbed palm and brown knuckles laced with scars from grooming the wealthy lawns and flower beds of Bel Air.

Carlos was right: Why hadn’t I stayed and argued?

I wanted to change. I wanted to become a man who saw things through to the end.
We pulled onto a high bluff and parked in a patch of sandy gravel. In the dense knit of surrounding green, I made out shrub oaks and black sage, yucca, and California buckwheat. One or two patches of chaparral had been recently cleared for houses.

“That doesn’t belong,” Carlos said, pointing at some non-native bonsai on the leeward side of a new construction. These plants were going up in Bel Air, too, the patrons having acquired the taste from their Japanese gardeners, recently freed from internment camps. A few of these men knew me from the Methodist church where I taught their young sons, and sometimes they gave me a lift. I asked once what the camps were like. Mr. Wantanabe told me the government had been very bad, but now he had a truck and a business and California was America again.

A hard coastal wind whipped across our faces. Sand grains lodged in my teeth. To the northwest curved honey-colored Zuma Beach, then the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Being a Monday, there were few people below on the beach, just a starfish cluster of surfers. Straight out was the dead-duck form of Catalina. From where we stood due south, there wasn’t another piece of land until Antarctica, 7,000 miles.

Carlos shook my shoulder. “Donald, it’s a beautiful day.”

“You know I can’t swim,” I said. I’d been to the beach just half a dozen times since our move to California.

“Diving is different. You just go down and come straight back up.”

Carlos tilted his head now, upward toward the clouds. Low on the wind came the distinctive roar of an aircraft, and we craned our necks to see it planing south over the hills. Having worked at Douglas together the summer before, we always stopped to identify what was flying overhead. My job had been operating the machine cleaving elliptical aluminum struts for the wing of the DC-6, just released. But I was a poor worker, constantly dreaming of my own unfathomable future. We had Quality Control, but young war widows were also easily distracted—their eyes trained at the far end of the floor where boys like Carlos walked by on the way to the john. For years now, whenever an airplane crashes, I research the make and model, gather every detail of its origin, just to make sure I couldn’t have been at fault. So far, Douglas has not made me responsible for any injury or death; unlike Carlos.

“DC-3,” I said, pointing. “Before our time.”

Carlos nodded, and we held still our gaze.

It was the first time I realized that looking at the same thing could bring people together. Now we’d call this bonding, but back then there was no such term. Back then, we’d also been ignorant of the upcoming conflict in Korea, where Carlos would be a fighter pilot, while I trudged through gook muck down in the infantry.

We carried along the cliff a metal bucket packed with ice and covered by wool blankets. At the edge of the steep path, Carlos said, “Easier to carry it alone,” and wrapped his arms around the tub as if carrying a hog to slaughter. Digging my heels into the cliff side for balance, I followed him down and around the corner to a rocky, sheltered cove. I had never seen water so shiny and placid.

I walked through the littoral to the water line. Carlos tossed a clump of dried kelp at my back. Ocean skirted softly around rocks and slipped over my toes. Even more so than up on the bluff, here we stood at the edge of the world. Rough green-brown mounds lurked under the surface. “Dinner,” Carlos said.

I nudged my feet further into the ocean. The water’s touch was both warm from the sun and coolly, wetly surprising. My feet curled under but did not withdraw. The horizon tugged my gaze forward and I thought: freedom. I did not love the water as I loved the stubborn hills of my Colorado childhood, but I could see its potential. I could see why, years later, when Carlos ejected from his burning plane over the Sea of Japan, he pulled out his camera and filmed his descent, trying to capture the vast patchwork of waves. It must have been then, during those moments of free fall, touching no one and nothing, that he overcame mortal fear; when he knew that pain was worse than death. Flying, like death, is sensationlessness. When I watched that motion picture, when we’d both been delivered home alive, I was seized, if only for a moment, by the thought that perhaps it was not Carlos himself who was remarkable but the circumstances and landscapes of our time.

When I spotted the tell-tale black foot of an abalone, I willed myself to charge under the surface. My fingers brushed the pimpled rock then clasped the outer shell. I tugged and tugged—seconds rolling into half a minute—until pain shot through my chest and I sent a desperate piston of energy down through my thighs. When my head broke the surface, I toppled like a cartoon.

“How the hell do you pry them off?” I gasped.

“Any little disappointment and you turn morose,” Carlos said, amused. He pulled something shiny out of the metal bucket. “Abalone iron. Tap their shells then slice underneath, real fast, before they sense you. Too slow, they clamp down, you’ll
never pry it loose.”

Carlos waded briskly out and dove under and took hold of the rock in his left hand and readied his right, eyes bulging in underwater concentration, then slipped the iron under a foot and pulled hard toward his body. Triumphantly, he pushed the animal’s pearly belly up through the water like it was an Olympic medal. Rivulets streaming between his eyes and over his ears, his face was honest, gleaming, open. Just as it looked in the last frame of his filmed ejection from the plane, when he’d turned the camera on himself.

Carlos tossed the shell into the ice and returned to the water, blade in hand.

We had only the one iron, so Carlos harvested the bulk of our catch. Today the individual limit is three abalone per day, but in our youth they were bountiful. In an hour, Carlos had brought up fifteen. We buried each one in the ice, not stopping to eat but working a miniature assembly line, like at Douglas. We stayed hydrated by melting chunks of ice in our mouths. My job was to gather a heap of algaed shells in my shirt and walk the load back up the beach to our bucket. I was peripheral to the whole operation, but I didn’t mind. Carlos had a way of making every activity feel like teamwork. I couldn’t have helped Carlos at the end if he hadn’t explicitly shared responsibility. I’ve replayed the tape many times, listening for regret, wavering, but I hear it only in my own voice. Does this make me a coward? Carlos is not here to tell me.

We must have collected more than seventy abalone. We were barely able to heft the metal bucket up the bluff. I suggested throwing some of the animals back because we couldn’t possibly eat them all, but Carlos refused.

“What we don’t need, we’ll can.”

He was high on his own exertion. The effort and sheer madness of our goal combined with the strong sun to alchemize a heightened camaraderie, an effect I’ve noticed only two or three times, and that was in the army, an institution designed to produce exactly this result.

We sat at the top of the bluff resting our backs against our catch. The morning fog was so long gone I would have denied it ever existed. The same with my argument with my father. Resting on the high plateau, the ocean below and above us only sky, I did not care about others’ welfare.

Carlos said, “Life can be perfect, you just have to work at it.”

I asked if he thought his attitude would be different if he was born poor.

“Of course. Life is rotten for a lot of people. I was talking about people like us.”

“Like us?”

“We’re like sharks, Don—strong, predatory, solo. The teeth and the toughness to eat up the world.” With a broad, tenacious hand gesturing toward the horizon, Carlos ensnared the coastline and ocean waters. “But don’t get me wrong, I believe everything Miss E said about the need for civil liberties.” Carlos would be a judge in twenty years, and he already had the grave, important face.
Back at The Hovel, we harvested the meat from the shells. Carlos took a rubber mallet and slammed it down on each white disc, to relax the muscle. We tossed them all in a big stew pot. Turned on the heat.

Over the next week, we saw a double feature every afternoon—Westerns, Charlie Chaplin, screwball comedies. One long film was about World War II vets, including a sailor with hooks for hands. What I remember most, though, is walking into the theater under a bright sky and emerging hours later under the same hue of blue. Nothing had changed. Inside, watching high drama on the big screen and laughing and tearing up, I’d thought that I was evolving. In those private theater moments, I recommitted myself to med school and determined to be firm in my beliefs and fight for the disadvantaged when I could. When Carlos asked me how I liked the picture, I said, “That was a good one.” This made him impatient, but I had no other response.

We went home to the pot of boiled mollusks and scraped out a few pieces of meat, which we ate with rice and a raw vegetable. Lunch was abalone sandwiches. Carlos allowed us hard-boiled eggs for breakfast because he got them for free from his parents in Topanga. A sweet musky smell hung trapped in the kitchen and permeated the walls. I wish I could say the abalone was delicious the first few days and then we grew tired of it. But the truth was that we overcooked the whole batch, and eating the animals was like chewing a briny fist.

And yet that week was the most glorious week of my life. Carlos and I were two halves of a clam, together from morning until night—he didn’t take out any girls because he had no money left. We talked on the bus on the way to the movies and on the way home, through mouths full of food, on delinquent walks around our neighborhood. Most nights we headed toward the Japanese section of town where my Sunday school students lived. The fathers invited us in for tea and rice crackers. Carlos teased me about my crush on Shinobu Watanabe.

The surfeit of abalone eventually revolted us, of course. The last night, four left in the pot, each of us comically played the gentleman: Why don’t you finish them? No, you enjoy, I insist. I remembered this shared nausea with fondness on the boat over to Korea, when we were fed oranges to fight scurvy but the waves made us throw them up in patches of citrusy vomit. There was no satisfaction or communal goodwill—no bonding—during that particular misery. Nor on the ground months later when our feet and underwear were sodden for days on end. Our week of abalone did not prepare us for war, but pushed us instead toward another kind of precipice. We were kids then and thought only of work and leisure.
After the war, Carlos moved up north, went to law school, was appointed and promoted many times over. I stayed in LA, working first at the VA then in private practice. We married and raised kids, though our families met only a handful of times. We weren’t much for writing, even when email came along, but we managed a sailing trip every few years. Once we made it up to the San Juans for four days. By then the water was a place of ease for both of us, and I was arguably the better sailor (I’d taken lessons), though Carlos could always outswim me and hold his breath for longer. His wife had left him less than a year ago, which he talked about openly, though he kept his dark glasses on most of the trip. There was a new woman he’d met, a painter, and he thought there was potential there.

When Carlos called last month, it had been seven years since we’d seen each other, only Christmas cards—signed Carlos & Linda—filling the intervening time. He told me about his current trial in Angels Camp, the old mining town. He was sure I would enjoy sitting in for a day. The trial was being held in an old brothel with velveteen walls.

“Are you still practicing?” he asked. “Still keep up your license?”

“I’m thinking about letting it lapse,” I said. I hadn’t seen any patients in five years, and though the license was useful for emergencies, the continuing-med-ed requirements were becoming burdensome. I’d procrastinate and leave myself only a few days to complete the credits, which always happened to be just when we were about to leave for vacation. “Your brothers can call their real doctors for their Lipitor,” my wife, Joan, said.

I told Carlos that Joan was visiting our newest granddaughter but I would fly up. He sounded pleased and we set a date. I was grateful he’d reached out. In fact, I was elated. We’re at the age of inertia, when most friendships cease to surprise. We keep condolence cards and a booklet of stamps in the roll-top desk in the hall. My parents and both the Townsends have been dead almost twenty years. Carlos and I had stood graveside together, shaking our heads, needing to say nothing, knowing we were next.
A row of one-story buildings lined the main street of Angels Camp, at the base of the Sierras. That time of year the mountains resembled the bottom of a campfire skillet—browned, pitted, roughed up with raised, hardened bits. The Main Street facades were the drab original brick, adobe, and wood, paint faded to preserve the past. Morning light washed them in a much-needed romantic glow. Signs in blocky Wild West letters advertised the requisite jewelers, antique shops, and swinging-door saloons. Outside the brothel was a sign that read No Loitering.

It delighted me to see Carlos in his robe on the bench, his tan, round face and close-cropped white hair and smile like a split peach. He saw me enter the courtroom. I nodded and quickly took a seat. Carlos hadn’t filled me in on the trial details, so what I witnessed made little sense. The defendant was a woman in her fifties, peroxided hair but otherwise sympathetic. She wore a maroon suit that stretched tightly across the shoulders, making her hunch. When one of the lawyers objected or otherwise appealed to Carlos, my friend delivered his full attention. Large eyes, still blue like California sky, and a firm triangular jaw supported by a withered neck. He wielded the gavel quick and sharp, as if cracking a shell. Every now and then he winced or shifted position, as if something particularly painful had been uttered.

“So what’s this all about?” I asked at lunch, over sirloins Carlos had ordered. We sat outside on the balcony, and one or two reporters watched us from down below. Carlos was enjoying the attention.

“I’m a visiting judge,” he said. “Have trial, will travel.”

“I mean what are the charges. What is she supposed to have done?”

“Rob a bank. Attempted to.”

“Bonnie looks a little old for that,” I said. “And where’s Clyde?”

Carlos shook his head. “I’m not kidding. Some police dogs helped catch her and her partner up on the roof of a bank when the alarm was tripped. Masks, weapons—they were prepared. So the prosecution alleges.” Carlos prodded his steak with his knife; made a cut but didn’t eat.

“She doesn’t have much of a chance, does she?”

“Always rooting for the underdog, Don. You learned Miss E’s lessons better than me. Still single-handedly supporting the ACLU?”

“They haven’t become obsolete.”

Carlos examined the back of his fork. “A real mining town should have real sterling, don’t you think?” He called over the waitress. “The center is cold and the exterior sawdust. Take it away, please.”

“You,” he said, pointing the fork at me, “Don’t vanish after the afternoon session.”

During the next two hours I hardly took my eyes off the defendant: harsh lines encircled her eyes, and she gritted her teeth when the police officer testified against her. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking. What kind of desperation? I was torn between pity and condemnation.

I looked at her, but I listened to Carlos. It’s interesting what you can hear when you don’t look at the face. My old friend sounded tired, and I realized that this kind of visiting gig must be exhausting for someone our age. His voice also sounded thin. While mine had grown deep and phlegmy in geezerhood, his had risen. In this high, stringy voice were knots. He snapped once at the defense lawyer, then apologized and repeated himself in a lower register. He gripped the gavel tightly but did not wield it until the end of the session, when he dismissed us.

I bought him a scotch in the back room of the tavern. I drank seltzer because alcohol makes my feet hot and I had to drive. This time we sat away from the crowds. On the walls were all manner of pointed, rusted mining tools, like a dentist’s office in a nightmare. A horseshoe was nailed at eye level, and I traced its outline with my finger.

Carlos told me he had pancreatic cancer.

Despite all my years of baldly diagnosing illness, talking coping, I could think of nothing to say. Could see nothing but Carlos sprawled across that orange salvaged couch in The Hovel, having given up his bed to one of our brothers. I had to ask him, finally, how long he’d known.

A week, he said.

Those knots I’d heard in his voice were choked fury. He’d expected to live forever in a way I’d never dreamed possible. Yet his face was calm, open as always, like Homer Parrish in The Best Years of Our Lives, which we’d seen together fifty-five years ago. Harold Russell and his hooks-for-hands had won a best supporting role “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”

“I want to opt out,” Carlos said.

It took several seconds to realize he wanted my help.

“I’m not that kind of doctor,” I said.

Carlos told me exactly how the drug needed to be prescribed and prepared.

“What about Linda?”

“A long time ago we agreed we have ownership over our deaths.”

Joan and I had had no such conversation.

It wasn’t until I was on Highway 4, almost in Stockton, wiping my eyes with swollen knuckles, that I realized Carlos never put it to me as a question.
Months after our week of abalone, on a Sunday, I returned to my parents’ ranch house in the Valley. Not for church, but in time for supper. The roast was dry and tasted of our rustic Colorado kitchen—dried herbs, charcoal, fermented grain. I said to my father, “Remember I used to be the pit boy on silo days, stamping down the ensilage as it poured in? Sometimes I thought I couldn’t keep up and I tried to run, but my feet would sink too far down.”

Mother offered more mashed turnips.

Father said, “Don, you know why we moved here?”

“Because we couldn’t make a living in Hilltop.”

He shook his head. “I knew that here in California was industry, progress for those willing to work for it. I want you to be part of that country. They can only take our spirit away if we let them.” Did I understand that I always had to be wary of those who wanted the easy way out, who’d take advantage of our sweat and goodness?

My father and I no longer agreed about what was good. He didn’t know this, but I did. On the point of what was worth living for, Carlos and I had always understood each other, even if we could not articulate it better than by example. I did what Carlos asked not because I couldn’t say no or because he spun some raw hay into golden thread, but because he had chosen me to be the one, because he had helped me understand, long ago, what it meant to divorce from wishful thinking.

We chose a day when Linda was out. Carlos at first couldn’t decide on a time, then I suggested before sunset, the hour when we’d drunk beer on the gravel lawn of The Hovel. There was very little to it, other than my own heart in my throat, the sprinklers turning on outside, and the momentarily taut cords of Carlos’s neck after he swallowed; the bared white teeth in his gray gums. I thought of my father, who had gripped the bedrails and pinned open his eyes until the last possible moment. Not Carlos. My friend’s neck relaxed and he took my hand, and then it was just like he’d promised—promised in his judge’s voice, with the calm yet curious eyes of a man drifting down at unknown speed.

Carlos had said in Angels Camp, “We’ll do it together,” and I believe we did. In the silent breath after his last, a thud like a hammer on a disc of dense muscle, he was still right there beside me.

Cover of TLR's "John le Carre" issueJennifer Acker is editor-in-chief of The Common. Her short stories, essays, and reviews have been published in n+1, Guernica, Slate, Harper’s, Ploughshares, and The Millions, among other places. She teaches at Amherst College.

“A Week of Abalone” was published in John Le Carré (TLR, Winter 2015).